Let’s say you’ve kept your writing journal for two months now. You’ve written every day, even if it was just ten words at a time, and aside from growing as a person, you’re starting to wonder if you’re growing as a writer. If you’re beginning to develop the ever coveted “writer’s voice.”
The answer? Of course you are, but you might not know where to look for it. Here’s the deal…
The paradox of voice: extraordinary ordinary
“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.”
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, “A Case of Identity”
All you have to do to be a writer is embrace your ordinary life—the life you live consistently and authentically—and think deeply about why you care about the things you care about. Inevitably, you are compelled by something, or you wouldn’t be writing. What is it? What is it that connects the minutia of your life in a way that is unique to you?
Why did you pick that recipe? What constraints are you under? How do you feel about them? What news articles did you follow this week? How did they make you feel? How do you deal with your anger or celebration? What’s on your mind as you drive to work? What conversations can’t you shake? What scenarios do you prepare for on a daily basis? Who catches your eye? What colors affect you? What keeps you up at night? What gets you out of bed?
The answers to those questions, and so, so many others like them are within you. You do not need to go on a quest for “different” or “unique” because you are already inherently different and unique from the next person.
Get to know your ordinary a bit, and then look at your writing journal.
What sorts of topics make it into your reflections and scenes? Is the authentic you showing up? Are you writing things that you know, or that you are truly curious about, or that make you mad, or make you happy? Are you being courageous and writing what’s truly on your mind?
Awesome. That’s the kernel of your voice. The rest is grammar.
The first three month I kept my journal, when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation, I, instead, wrote a billion other things. I wrote bits of historical fiction, reflections on the forest, notes about authors I admired, experimental pieces, and precisely 500 words of my project.
I momentarily despaired.
But then I looked at the thing from another angle. While some of this was just procrastination, I was also seeing what my mind had produced based on my levels of energy and engagement in relation to my day job, social media and conversation, online articles, digested books, the news, etc. What I was seeing, right there on the page, was the topography of my ordinary life at that moment in time.
The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t write my dissertation. The problem was that I was trying to write the wrong dissertation—the dissertation that existed in some hyper-professional frame of mind totally distant from my true self. What I thought I should write and what I wanted to write, were not even remotely in accordance.
So, I thought about how I could be more creative and reflective with my dissertation, and how I could incorporate more of what enraged and inspired me in the hopes that it would propel me forward.
The next month I wrote 10,437 words on my main project, in addition to 2894 words on other random projects. I also recorded a breakthrough with a character, set up some new dissertation chapter outlines, and edited a few things.
In other words, I ditched what bored me—the stuff I thought I had to be, mainly—and harnessed my project to what really interested me on a daily basis. As a result, I produced something unique, truthful, and lyrical (according to my panelists): the extraordinary ordinary.
There can be dragons
Of course, once you’ve found the kernel of your voice—the things that drive you, frustrate you, please you—you can create projects and characters of any sort.
It might be that you lean toward humor, because you process your shittiest days through that lens. It might be that you have a flare for the curious, and decide to take up a hobby and write about learning it. It might be you think big-picture and you want to build an epic fantasy world around an experimental economy. It might be that you adore your minutia, and you decide to build a mystery that hinges on the overuse of a toothbrush. It might be that you are super obsessed with memes and youtube and want to rework an old and tired topic or character trope for modern audiences.
All that really matters is that you write what is really, really you. Even if that truth lives inside of a witch riding a dragon over a volcano, or inside of a robot that wishes he was a tree, or inside a sentient top hat, it’s still your voice.
But what if you change drastically as a person? What if you need a character who is the opposite of who you are? What if you’re still convinced you are boring?
More on that in my next post.